Stop Eating Disorders Before They Start

Deborah Wingert emphasizes a mission of health and wellness at Manhattan Youth Ballet. Photo by Erin Baiano, courtesy of Manhattan Youth Ballet

"My first eating disorder, I was about 14," says Deborah Wingert, head faculty at Manhattan Youth Ballet. "I remember carefully limiting everything I ate. I'd eat three quarters of the piece of toast and not the last quarter." Then she'd skip lunch, but eat dinner normally. Her parents never suspected she had a problem. "It was very secretive, and I felt in control," she says. "I couldn't change the shape of my legs, but I could lose weight."


She was a student at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet at the time, and nervous about being in peak shape for a performance. Once she made it through the show, she went back to eating normally

Then, five years into her career with New York City Ballet, she was being passed over for coveted roles and found herself once again grasping for control. “You're not in charge of your career," she says. “Someone else is deciding what you dance and who you're dancing with." Her anorexia returned. Within a few months, she was hooked on laxatives and making herself throw up. A year later, with her weight fluctuating and her progress as a performer flatlining, she sought help from the company dietitian, who successfully coached her back to healthy eating habits.

Today, she says she's lucky she has a healthy daughter, a successful marriage and a positive relationship with food. From her vantage point at age 51, it's easier to see that being a successful dancer is more about being healthy and strong than being thin. She counts herself fortunate that she can still dance and demonstrate nearly full-out. “I spent way too much time loathing my body," she says. “I wish I would have not made such a big deal of it."

Now, as a teacher, Wingert prioritizes passing on a healthier lifestyle to her students. She encourages dancers to talk to staff members if they're concerned a classmate isn't eating, and she keeps a careful eye out for any dancer who may be unhappy or struggling with (it's usually—but not always—“her") weight.

Wingert maintains that her eating disorder was driven by her own quest for control and perfection rather than teachers or directors telling her to slim down. But she does remember that her artistic director once told her she'd “never looked better" at a time that she recalls being at her thinnest. The truth is the culture of ballet still reveres thinness, and it's a challenge to convince dancers it is not the highest goal of physical conditioning.

Ballet teachers often face an uphill battle in promoting a positive body image and healthy eating habits. But like Wingert, you can lead by example. Emily Harrison, an Atlanta Ballet teacher, former company member and registered dietitian, says that the goal is to prevent eating disorders from happening in the first place.

Use the right language.

Most teachers today wouldn't dream of calling students names or using language like “flabby" and “soft" to describe their bodies. But you can go beyond that and use intentionally positive language. When Wingert talks about her goals for her dancers, she repeats words like “beautiful," “healthy" and “vital." She says she wants them to be “strong" and “capable." This is the language she uses in the studio, too. “The words we use are the words students are going to hear," she says. You can ensure they're repeatedly hearing positive language.

Technique can make magic.

Nobody has the truly “perfect" ballet body. “Principal dancers are always complaining their leg doesn't go high enough," says Wingert. Whenever possible, try shifting the focus away from what the body can't do to what dancers can make it do—or make it look like it's doing—with good technique. “I talk a lot about the smoke and mirrors in ballet," Wingert says. “How to work within your own parameters to make a leg look more turned out," or make the arms look longer by unfurling the port de bras through shoulders, elbows and then wrists.

Prove that you eat regular meals.

Harrison says when she teaches at Atlanta Ballet, she always brings snacks for herself, like an apple or carrot sticks. Then, during a break, she'll eat it in front of the students. She'll sometimes eat her lunch in the hallway around them, too, just to show that eating is part of her schedule. “I think we need to model good behavior," she says.

Steer dancers toward regular meals.

During a long block of classes, Harrison suggests you pause and ask dancers, “Have you eaten in the last three hours?" If they haven't, tell them to grab a bite—like a handful of almonds or a granola bar. And don't be afraid to be stern, saying, “I need to see every one of you eating or drinking something." Harrison also urges teachers to allow water or sports drinks in the studio.

Keep an open door.

Let students know you're open to talking about their food concerns—either personal or if they're worried about a classmate. Dancers are invited to stop by the Manhattan Youth Ballet office anytime. It's a scary thing approaching a teacher to talk about a classmate, but Wingert says the word has gotten around that faculty can be trusted with sensitive information. “Students usually come in a pair or trio and say they have something they need to share, and they ask for anonymity," she says. “Our school has created that feeling of safety."

Talk privately about body concerns.

Don't draw attention to a dancer's body changes in front of others, even to praise it, says Harrison. If you are concerned about a dancer—if she drops a concerning amount of weight over a few weeks or a couple months, especially if it causes her to lose strength and stamina during class, or if other students have begun talking about it, speak with the dancer privately in a positive way. “Always start with, 'I care about you and I want you to be healthy,'" Harrison says. Then, “'I've noticed your body has changed over the last few months, and here's why I am concerned.'"

If you think the student is at the point of being in danger—significant weight loss, skin color has changed, extra body-hair growth—call in the parents, Harrison says. Wingert says they tend to respond in one of two ways: “Either they'll be in complete denial or they'll start to sob and say, 'We don't know what to do.'" In the cases where a parent doesn't think there's a problem, Wingert will ask that the dancer get a doctor's clearance before continuing classes.

Know where dancers can get help.

If a student confides in you about an eating disorder or you meet with a student's parents because you're concerned, you'll need to know where to send them for help. Every studio needs a list of referrals, says Harrison. “Who's the school counselor? Who's the physician?" Have those answers, and make sure you find a registered dietitian with experience treating dancers. DT

Registered dietitian Emily Harrison provides a list of nutritional resources and information about eating disorders on her website, dancernutrition.com/resources.

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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